Creech Elementary

Ginger Dewberry moves into her classroom at the newly reopened Creech Elementary in July 2017.

Ginger Dewberry never set out to be a hero. She just became one during the floods from Hurricane Harvey.

Dewberry is a second-grade teacher at Creech Elementary School – a campus located by Mason Road in the area between Fry Road and the Westpark Toll Road: The area that was submerged during Hurricane Harvey. The school and the homes of all the students zoned to it were flooded out.

Dewberry herself was not displaced by the storm because she lives in a higher area of Katy, but her beloved students and many of her coworkers were all refugees of the most hard-hit area in the city.

AUG. 28

Dewberry would go on to earn the title “Harvey Hero” for her rescue efforts. Her story began Monday, Aug. 28, 2017 when Dewberry received a desperate call from Yvette Garcia, a co-worker who was trapped inside the Canyon Gate subdivision. Up until this point, Dewberry was unaware of the gravity of the situation in Canyon Gate. “I knew things were bad,” said Dewberry, “but I didn’t realize they were trapped, and their only hope was evacuation.”

Dewberry turned to Facebook and also began frantically texting her contacts in an effort to find a rescue boat for Garcia. Fortunately, she managed to find one, and Garcia was evacuated safely. Unbeknownst to Dewberry, that singular action would hurl her into a role as a dispatcher for the Cajun Navy.

As soon as desperate rescuers learned that Dewberry had the ability to direct a rescue boat, they begged her to become a de facto dispatch. “A guy from El Paso told me to download the Zello app, which turns your phone into a two-way radio, so I could launch boats,” said Dewberry. “I had no idea how to do that, so I tried telling him, ‘I’m not a dispatcher. I’ve never done anything like this. I don’t think I’m qualified,’ but he said, ‘No one does. We just need help’.”

Dewberry’s home was safe, but flooded roads isolated her from the destruction site. Unable to travel to Canyon Gate, Dewberry set up a headquarters in her kitchen. From there, she intercepted distress calls, plotted their locations on a map, and dispatched members of the Cajun Navy to answer the plea.

With every boat she dispatched, Dewberry felt a cold terror for her students, knowing many of the addresses she reported housed the young children she taught. Said Dewberry: “I knew my kids were in those homes, and it broke my heart,” she said. “I was so afraid for them.”

Over the course of the next few days, Dewberry and the other dispatchers would launch nearly 1,000 rescues. Yet even when the last evacuee was pulled from the devastation, Dewberry knew her job as a rescuer had only just begun.

ASSESSING CREECH

When the flood waters receded, it was time to assess the damage to Dewberry’s school. The school was a total loss. The building had been submerged in four feet of water, destroying not only the structure, but all the property and supplies inside of it.

Like most dedicated teachers, Dewberry had filled her classroom with her own personal property. Said Dewberry: “My husband jokes that Creech is more my house than my house. I don’t think many people realize how many personal items the teachers lost. It wasn’t just school supplies.”

While many Katy schools were damaged by the hurricane, none had sustained the catastrophic loss of Creech. Every desk, bulletin board and teaching material was irreparably damaged. One thing was clear: No one would be returning to the building for the remainder of the year.

Katy ISD was faced with making the difficult decision of what to do with the nearly 900 displaced students from Creech. Some suggested dividing the students into different schools within the district. The possibility was terribly upsetting to the Creech staff, who felt the students had already endured so much.

Children would be separated from their friends and placed among unfamiliar faces. Furthermore, every student at Creech had suffered the same fate. Staying together meant the children would be surrounded by peers that had shared the same experiences. Said Dewberry: “This way, no one would be singled-out as the kid who had had their lives uprooted. Everyone understood.”

And so when Katy ISD Superintendent Dr. Lance Hindt called the Creech teachers together and announced that the students would not be separated, Dewberry and her teaching partner, Amanda Thevis, hugged and cried tears of joy. “Every teacher in that room cheered,” said Dewberry. “We knew we could face any struggle as long as we were together.”

The University of Houston campus in Cinco Ranch had offered its vacant building to Katy ISD as an interim school building while Creech Elementary School underwent its substantial repairs. It was going to be a tight-fit, though. While Creech was nearly 130,000 square feet, the UH Cinco Ranch campus was only 35,000 square feet.

‘CREECH UNIVERSITY’

“Creech University” sounds like the name of a small private college. In reality, it is the nickname the teachers of Creech Elementary jokingly gave the cramped and bare quarters that served as a school for the displaced students of Hurricane Harvey. “We had to find a way to laugh about it,” said Dewberry, “otherwise we might have cried.”

Dewberry and Thevis were going to have to share a classroom. On Sept. 11, 2017, the Creech teachers and students moved into their new school. When Dewberry saw her new classroom, she nearly gasped. The miniscule room was half the size of her regular classroom, and it was  going to have to hold 40 children. “We were packed in there like sardines,” Dewberry recalled.

There was one bathroom for everyone. There was no cafeteria. There was no playground or gym and no sports equipment, so recess required considerable creativity. “We tried everything we could think of to encourage the kids to play without a playground or even a kickball,”  Drewberry said. “Sometimes it was a success, but other times the kids would just sit down and ask to go back inside.”

The lack of space and adequate supplies were not the worst of the teachers’ struggles, however. The truly daunting task was trying to comfort an entire school full of young trauma victims. Katy ISD sent counselors to help provide teachers with tools for helping their charges through their emotional distress.

FIRST RAIN SINCE HARVEY

Dewberry has crushing memories of the time. “The first time it rained really hard after Harvey, all the children cried,” she said. “Two even hid in the corner. These children lived horrors that no child should ever have to experience.”

The counselors suggested that the teachers give their students an outlet for openly discussing the ordeal they had endured. So Dewberry and Thevis created a “community circle.” Each day the children would gather and discuss what they had been through in the hurricane.

“They shared the most horrible stories,” Dewberry said. “Most of these kids were removed from their home by boat, and some were even airlifted to safety. These are little 8-year-olds, talking about how they were pulled out second-story windows.”

The emotional weight of carrying the suffering of her students took a heavy toll on Dewberry, but she was determined never to let the children see her stress or sorrow. “No matter what I felt or what I went through, every single day I left it at the door,” she said. “I walked in the room with a smile on my face because I had to be strong for them.”

One aspect of the ordeal that still resonates with Dewberry is the overwhelming gratitude and understanding of the parents of the Creech children. “You would think everything would have been a frustration to parents, but really, it was totally the opposite,” said Dewberry. In general parents supported the teachers, and the two groups confronted obstacles as a team. “I’ve never seen so much gratitude in all my years of teaching as I did from those parents,” she said.

Dewberry also found herself consoling the parents of her students much as she had consoled the students themselves. Said Dewberry: “Parents would cry on my shoulder sometimes. As teachers, we don’t often see the vulnerable side of parents, but these are people who had lost everything, and we were there for them.”

ONE BIG FAMILY

Thevis and Dewberry often called the class “one big family” because the two taught subjects together in one room, and the parents became as much a part of their journey as the students. The community came together in that small space, whether they were students or the families that needed each other.

A year after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, Creech reopened its doors to students last week for the first day of classes on Aug. 15.

A new year means renewed hope for its families, many of whom are still struggling to rebuild their lives. Dewberry believes this return to normalcy will be an important step in helping the children recover from their trauma and upheaval.

“In many ways, I think we all identify the disaster with ‘Creech University’, so I think going back to Creech will help us all distance ourselves from it,” said Dewberry.

And while the community will never be the same again, Dewberry believes the storm brought out the best in people. “The words that stick with me the most are, ‘community at it’s finest’. That’s how I would describe the people. I’ve never seen people band together like this ever before.”